Jackal Among Snakes
Chapter 568: Hole Where the Heart Was

Everyone, including Argrave, had seen Anneliese descend down from the wyvern into the field of grass between the two armies. He had watched it with a heavier heart than anyone else, but he knew that she was the only one who could reliably pursue the most important goal—cutting off the head of the ugly beast that had wormed itself around the Great Chu.

Perhaps, however, it would be more accurate to say this Dimocles was a mere hand of the beast—the true beast was above, raining hellfire upon the countryside of the Great Chu. While Anneliese did battle on the ground, Argrave’s battle would be altogether different… while she fought on the front, he was to swat away the gnats: Erlebnis’ emissaries.

Their scouting capabilities were robust, fortunately, and they noticed the monstrosities lurking throughout the surrounding countryside long before they could ambush and destroy vast amounts of people by channeling Erlebnis’ power as pure magic. Dimocles must’ve called in Erlebnis to ensure victory. These creatures, while possessing the Blessing of Supersession the same as Dimocles, lacked the capacity to use shamanic magic. This made them vulnerable to spells like [Requite], whereas a mortal like Dimocles would be capable of neutralizing any such spell.

And standing with him on the battlefield for the first time Argrave could recall… the Alchemist rose dozens of feet above the army, clad in chitinous armor made of his own flesh and blood and still brimming with magic even after the procedure on Argrave and Ji Meng. With him on his right, and Orion on his left… Argrave felt infinitely reassured.

“Such tedium,” complained the Alchemist. “I have better things to do with my day.”

Argrave’s royal guard eyed the giant figure warily. The perceptive few were vaguely aware that this person existed, but now he stood openly on Argrave’s side. It was a marked change.

“If you do your best, we might be able to go home early,” he tapped the Alchemist on the wrist. “For now… let’s keep the nosy pedestrians off Anneliese’s stage.”

Forward they marched, seeking to cut off the grasping hands of the Qircassian Coalition. The gods watched the skies close at hand, ready to intercept any interference.


After Anneliese landed in between the two armies, she stayed still as both continued to advance. Dimocles, sensing something was wrong, let his army advance somewhat ahead as he hung back. Perhaps he wanted to retreat, but Anneliese’s weapon would surely be preventing him from acting on these thoughts. As the two armies ahead and behind folded in on each other, probing attacks flew her way. Magic-imbued arrows, spells… yet she patiently blocked them all with humble wards, staying firm.

Though it was the most dangerous, there was something Anneliese had long ago embraced. It was in the heart of the battlefield, caught in waves of chaos, that she was most potent.

And so when the enemy army neared, she advanced forth and sent out powerful ice magic. The now-lighter staff in her left and the blue-gray sword in her right proved no obstacle to spellcasting, as she’d ample practice fighting like this. A writhing blizzard, shards of ice formed into daggers, hurtled across the field of grass destructively, shearing a path before her.

With her first attack, she felt that tremendous glut of magic bore into her—the product of chaos, of her spells whirling through the air and stealing from mortals the very heart of their magic. Their defensive wards buckled beneath the sheer pressure of her attack, straining, and as they broke they became her strength. It was against an army that [Life Cycle] was most at home, sapping the magics of thousands.

Counters came shortly after—lightning magic, cutting through the blizzard faster than the eye could see, but she had been prepared. It struck her ward. Shortly after, countless other attacks followed. It was like the army was a giant swatting an insect it had just been made aware of. When their first effort failed, spells fizzling away on her ward and empowering her once more, she earned the undivided attention of the enemy.

With the attention of an army came sheer waves of power. Anneliese sent her own attacks—writhing whirlwinds to blow away the blades of ice that sought to bleed her, great walls of rumbling earthen magic to ward away the lightning that sought to stun her, towering infernos to turn geysers into naught more than steam… she cast without thought, with reckless abandon, and each attack she sent thrived in the chaos of war.

Anneliese became a front on the battlefield all on our own, the armies ahead and behind splitting in twain in deference of the absolute destruction bridging the gap between Anneliese and Dimocles’ entire army. Where there had been a serene plain of grass once, there was now only a desolate field of earth that was blackened, twisted. All before the two froze, melted, or turned to dust in a state of constant flux from the volleying energies sent back and forth. There was a great trail of destruction beneath her feet as she advanced, and both armies gave their battlefield a wide berth until she was alone in a circle at the heart of both armies.

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Her foes were many—old masters that’d seen thousand of battles and hundreds of wars, or the talented and ambitious that, much like herself, achieved outsized advancement at a young age. She dealt with A-rank ascensions uncountable—people that could meld with the earth and appear near her, those who could leave spells like landmines, or those that could constrict the very air itself with magic.

Anneliese outlasted them all.

She needed constant prudent judgment and the discerning eye offered by her blessing of [Truesight] at all times, or a blow would sneak past her. She wasn’t perfect; some attacks landed. Yet the Inerrant Cloak lent to her by Argrave consumed her magic to block most any attack. Magic flowed into and out of her in the heart of this absolute chaos, meaning it could absorb countless blows—she deliberately let some pass to take advantage of the artifact in this dangerous match of life or death.

As more and more time passed, her opponent’s intensity lessened while hers remained static. While she stood tall, they began to falter, to shrink away. Key players fell back one after another, exposing more and more of Dimocles’ elite forces to Anneliese’s wrath. Her allied forces, meanwhile, were a constant pressure that sought to constrain rather than decimate. Their goal was not slaughter: it was to cut off the head, and so they facilitated Anneliese in small numbers while the bulk of the army stayed back.

Anneliese advanced upon her weakening opponents, and as the opposition’s spells waned, she found herself taking magic not from the spells of her enemies but tearing it free from their very flesh and blood. She was like rushing water against dirt, wearing people away into oblivion as she cut toward the heart of this army. And soon enough, she saw what she was seeking.

The golden lamellar armor of the palace guard shone brightly in the battlefield, their helmets bearing silver crescent moons. They bore divine armaments as they stood around the Blue Emperor, Dimocles, who had been rooted in place. Even they seemed jarred that their emperor would not retreat… but they couldn’t know he was entirely barred from fleeing. He wasn’t physically restrained from moving backward, yet any thoughts he had of retreat, his mind would not obey. He only had one choice—fight her.

But as befit the palace guard, these people stood boldly in defiance of Anneliese’s power. As befit those that guarded the emperor in his palace, they were well-suited for defending their master. Their weapons could cut through magic itself, reducing it to nothing more than black mist: Ji Meng had warned her of this. They demonstrated that ability ably, and for the first time, Anneliese’s relenting push slowed as her magic did not return as quickly.

Yet as Anneliese watched ahead, she felt that problem was soon about to be remedied. Dimocles glowed with power unimaginable, the Blessing of Supersession pouring oceans of magic all throughout his body. The Blue Emperor’s body twisted, and the front of his body erupted past his armor into dozens of arms with dozens of hands, each and all casting spell matrixes.

“Just die, freakish thing!” she barely heard above the din.

Five minutes, Anneliese knew. Five more minutes, and he would be nothing more than another like the countless she’d passed by before. But Dimocles fell to the ground, each of his innumerable hands touching the earth. Rather than attack her, it would seem, he changed his targets to something without defenses.

The earth itself, battered and broken from the unending volleys of power… it split in two, cracking. She felt gravity claim the earth beneath, and began to fall.


The pit in the earth that arose following Anneliese’s advance to Dimocles’ position was dwarfed only by the pit in Argrave’s stomach when he lost sight of her as she fell into the unending abyss beneath the earth. Vast stretches of the ground had simply parted in an unprecedented display that demonstrated the full might of Erlebnis’ Blessing of Supersession. That display of power wasn’t ordinary, elsewise Argrave and the Alchemist might’ve struggled with these emissaries a great deal more than they had.

The crater resulting from Dimocles’ move was large enough to swallow a city… and it had indeed swallowed part of one, its buildings lurching treacherously on the fringe. Canals had been interrupted, nearby farmhouses had been entirely swallowed, and vast amounts of water from a disturbed river spawned a gargantuan waterfall into this new pit. The chaos in the skies above prevented ample light from filtering down, so it appeared as though nothing more than an abyss waited down below.

Dimocles’ entire army had vanished… but then, so too had much of the forces that Ji Meng had been leading. Great Chu forces were most heavily hit, while the Veidimen had been flanking from the side so avoided any significant damage. The emperor himself had been spared this result, and Argrave even saw Ji Meng peering out into the crater from a distant hill.

“Can you see her?” Argrave asked the Alchemist anxiously. “Can you see anything at all?”

“I see Dimocles, burning brightly. He’s using the earth as his weapon, rather than magic. He seeks to bury all. As for Anneliese…”

Argrave closed his eyes and steadied his breathing. He opened his eyes, staring into the pit. “She’ll be fine. She’ll win. I trust she’ll win.”

Chapter 568: Hole Where the Heart Was
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